Love Letter: Grandmother

My grandmother pre-dates the city I live in and the country it’s attached to by sixty years and twelve years respectively. She pre-dates my mother by twenty-five years, my father by eighteen, and the apartment building I live in by ten. Her existence in my life, then, is something of a miracle of history: somehow, amid the distant black-and-white photos of civil wars and fish markets from worlds away, she is there; and somehow she is here.

I didn’t know any of this until she died three years ago. It’s rare for grandchildren in my culture to know their grandparents’ names, much less their ages, and so for seventeen years of my life she was simply “here.” In my childish imagination, she could not have possibly existed beyond me. I imagined her springing fully formed, with a graying perm and bruised, blotchy skin, into the world like a mythical deity the moment I gained consciousness.

Reality bolstered my theory: I was fluent in English while her vocabulary was limited to “pencil” and “orange”; I maneuvered my way around iPhones and iPods with ease while the cord of her landline tangled and panicked her; I dived and dolphin-kicked across fifty-metre pools while she spluttered along in a botched doggy-paddle. How could she, riddled with incompetence, have gone anywhere else?

My doctor-father lectured her on health and weight and safety while my mother and aunts chimed in with pedestrian advice. Grandma — swollen with age and Chineseness — couldn’t navigate and traverse worlds the way we could, and so even a twisting tongue, a ringing phone, a splashing pool could increase her risk of mortality.

So we kept her less mortal, and so unsurprisingly she became the star that gripped the solar system of our family. We bowed to her. Our family tree, which stretched across cultures and countries and continents, came back to rest at our roots, browned and edemic in old Jusco slippers. Those toenails were twisted and brittle and ridged with keratin. When I grew older, I imagined that her feet must have escaped Japanese-occupied southern China in the 1940s for colonized Hong Kong. I imagined they must have faltered under the weight of possessionlessness, and wondered how she had dug her toes so firmly into the soil of a new city. I wondered how different it was to now stumble over languages and chlorinated pools and landline cords, and whether roots could ever be planted at all.

But when my grandmother died, I learnt that she’d taken a boat to Hong Kong and that the journey had been smooth and unromantic. She had married my grandfather after he failed to woo her sister, and they had decided mutual disdain and two incomes was better than loneliness. She lost her third child — and first son — in 1961. Stillborn.

Roots are, contrarily, capricious animals.

My first memory of my grandmother is from kindergarten, of her picking up my cousin and I after school and taking us to a cha chaan teng to have iced lemon tea. I have no recollection of how often this happened, only of a cold, hard booth seat next to my cousin, legs kicking with the sour-bitter taste of lemon tea. My grandmother sat across from us, presumably, but I have little memory of what she looked like: in my child’s mind, she was a permanent background fixture that was always there, so simply that there was no need to consider would-bes.

I don’t remember what she looked like in that cha chaan teng across twin iced teas but the only other person I could ask, now, is my cousin.

My cousin and I were inseparable. At Sunday family dinners, we dashed around my grandmother’s apartment and flung ourselves under her queen-sized covers; on Halloween night we concocted soapy water-balloons and tossed them out of her 15th-floor window; we fell asleep watching Ben 10 on Cartoon Network as the adults discussed adult things like swimming lessons and Chinese medicine and healthy weights.

We are together in every possible childhood photo: at his birthday party, at mine, at winter solstice dinner, at Lunar New Year dinner, at the zoo. We shared beyblades, books, and a set of grandparents. Being the only son in a lineage of only sons, he was my grandfather’s favorite; being the youngest, I was the center of my grandmother’s hawklike attention. That was where our differences began, though far from where they might end. We attended different schools, made different friends, and spoke different languages at home. There is only so far blanket forts and water balloons can extend, and we left them behind to move on in newer, older bodies.

As we grew up, Sunday family dinners became markers for the distance stretching between us. We sat on our usual wooden stools (that we had outgrown), drank from our matching Doraemon mugs (chipped and yellowed), placed chicken bones in the same ceramic dish (I took the left side and he the right, as far away as possible). He was having trouble at school, my mother told me. Best not to say anything. He left to study somewhere in Japan soon after, and I was left with the blankets on my grandmother’s bed and the cable television that didn’t have Cartoon Network anymore: ghosts of our childhood that no longer bore their meanings in his absence.

The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral in November. My sister and I had flown back from London, while he had flown back from Fukuoka. I cried, he didn’t. He folded a whole sack’s worth of paper money, which I burnt in a little alcove fireplace while an impatient monk supervised, for insurance. For the first time in 5 years, we were on the same continent — in the same room, even — but we didn’t speak. Perhaps it was because the chasm between us had grown so large that neither of us could fathom how to open our mouths (what language would we speak? what would we say?), or perhaps it was because when I sniffled he unfolded a tissue, jasmine-scented, and there was really nothing to be said beyond that.

Yet by returning, by seeing his face, my childhood memories were yanked firmly into the present and stamped with greasy fingerprints. My grandmother in a cha chaan teng, across tall glasses of lemon tea, was no longer a figure of the past but a ghost of the present.

Grief is, after all, remembrance. In remembering the past, we uncap the oxygen mask and kill it, present tense, over and over each time we remember.

Time is anything that moves. Death is anything that doesn’t. Grief, then, is somewhere in between, an artificiality borne from the fissures between motion and stillness, a plea to compress a world of time into the space between one heartbeat and the next. Trapped between motion and stillness, present and past, we grieve and kill, and grieve and kill. Let me stay here. Stay with me.

In the year that I’d been away in England, I hadn’t thought about my grandmother much. She was a relic of my past frozen on a different continent and a world away from my shiny new life in Birmingham. In my mind, I had always been moving ahead of my grandmother, from English words to telephone cords winding around queen-sized blankets and bottomlessly blue, blue swimming pools. How long had I been grieving her, really?

Had she grieved me, before she died?

And so here is the final sacrifice of grief, in a cold hard room with sacks of paper money and a 5-year-old ghost and a casket: to explode and burn searingly bright at the center of a fraying family, reunite them at the roots of your old, brown, death-shrunken feet and say: Look at me, think of me, if only for me to die once more.

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